Who: Olive Ashworth (1915-2000).
What: A commercial artist who worked across a number of disciplines including photography, advertising and graphic design. Her textile designs made an important mark on Queensland’s fashion history.
Where: Ashworth was trained in Melbourne but returned to her hometown of Brisbane in the 1930s. She set up her business in the Brisbane suburb of Coorparoo.
When: Ashworth worked as a designer and illustrator from the 1930s until the late 20th century. She launched her own business, Olive Ashworth Publicity Services, in 1945, and later her own textiles firm, Indigenous Designs of Australia, in 1971.
Why: Olive Ashworth’s designs made an important contribution to Queensland’s image as a vibrant tropical destination, and her imagery continues to resonate in the popular imagination. In what was a formative time in the creation of Queensland’s modern image as the ‘Holiday State’, Olive Ashworth produced popular textile prints that drew on Australian flora, fauna, and landmarks such as the Great Barrier Reef and rainforests of Far North Queensland. Her use of vivid colour, rich illustrative detail, and keen sense of design helped to sell Queensland’s natural features and lifestyle to the emerging post-war tourist market.
In the early 1930s Ashworth, then only a teenager, showed early talent whilst studying at Melbourne’s Art Training Institute. Returning to Brisbane, Ashworth quickly established herself as a commercial artist, heading the art department of Burns Philps, an Australian company dealing in food manufacturing and tourism. Although not much has been written on Ashworth, there is much evidence in public collections of her work in Queensland tourism, such as her photographs of business trips to a variety of resort destinations.
In 1945, Ashworth set up her own company ‘Olive Ashworth Publicity Services’, which operated until the mid 1960s, offering her versatile skills in commercial design and advertising. At the height of Queensland’s island resort development, Ashworth’s imaginative brochures for destinations like Herron Island were instrumental in selling the tourism potential of the Great Barrier Reef. Ashworth spent time in the underwater observatory on the Reef and prolifically produced pencil and watercolour studies of coral, shells, and fish that drew on her direct observation and photographs.
Her move into the field of fashion and textiles was undoubtedly spurred on by success in a prestigious Australian design contest: in 1954, she was a highly publicised finalist in the Leroy-Alcorso Textile Design Competition. Her design ‘Aquarelle’ was not the winner, however, of all the finalists’ designs, hers attracted the greatest demand from consumers. She was also reported to have ‘cracked’ the overseas market with her use of Australian motifs securing her international manufacture.
Her clothing and textiles label, ‘Indigenous Designs of Australia’, launched in 1971, was the next step in translating her iconic Australiana to the body. Her range of formal and casual garments, including beachwear, were produced in unfussy styles, drawing inspiration from traditional dress of the Asia Pacific region. Her wrap-around ‘Turelin’, for example, was marketed as ‘Australia’s answer to the sarong’; in essence, a printed length of cotton fabric fastened to the body with a reef knot. In her pursuit of creating designs that could be considered authentic to Australia’s developing national identity, she used Aboriginal words to name her garment designs—a practice common at the time, but problematic from a contemporary perspective.
In 1982 she registered a new business, Olive Ashworth Specialty Cottons Boutique, which also operated from her Coorparoo premises.
Ashworth was a highly industrious and methodical designer. Her legacy is a large body of work that demonstrates her ability to work through ideas across a diverse range of media. Numerous sketches and stylised studies of Queensland flora and fauna were produced in a range of patterns and colour palettes. Her designs, whether for textiles or tourism brochures relied on an impressive set of skills, yet utilised an unpretentious range of materials: mostly pencil, paper and glue.
Ashworth designs have been exhibited at Queensland Art Gallery (1982), Centre Gallery, Gold Coast (1988), and State Library of Queensland (1991). Her work is held in state and private collections, including the Queensland Museum and State Library of Queensland.
Published in Issue 9, on February 25, 2014.